Communicating with the Germans: Part 1
The internet is awash with blogs and articles that cover the minutia of German to English mistakes. The growth of English as a global language has also created the concept of Denglisch, the mixing of both English and German to create a terrifying monster language that eats up words and turns them into strange new phrases. At its worst, it misappropriates and misuses words, at its best it creates languages that can be unintentionally hilarious. It is easy to come across as elitist in discussions about the use of language and since learning to speak German, one of my most hated interactions is with those who think that their inherent knowledge of their mother tongue gives them license to act in snide or haughty ways when they hear it spoken incorrectly. By all means, correct me if I say something ridiculous, but do not expect me to be full of praise if you do it in an angry and exacerbated way. Language learning can be a life long process, so getting mad because my dialect is different or that I have problems pronouncing ü, ä and ö is not making the experience any better.
In the same way, British people can be incredibly spiky when it comes to what they might consider misspoken English. For many of my countrymen and women, American English is a language entirely made up of mistakes and misuses. If you want to see a British person lose their cool, use the word soccer more than once in 10 seconds and watch the corresponding meltdown. Language and phrasing can be difficult to master and throughout the process there will be some serious missteps, but these mistakes are where we learn. Nothing helps improve a persons' language more than by making a calamitous and very public mistake. The resulting fist biting embarrassment will guarantee that the mistake is never repeated.
Words like handy (mobile phone), shitstorm or the bizarre upgedated are some famous examples of English to German misuse, but in my time here I have come across many other, less well known errors of language.
After only a few months of living in Germany, I found myself in a meeting room, preparing to teach a group of German office workers English. I had always wanted to teach and now that my opportunity had arrived, I was terrified. My major concern, in those panic filled first moments was whether or not I would be able to hold the text book without it slipping from my sweat drenched hands or realising that I could not hold the white board marker without my arms involuntarily shaking. The latter point was of less worry to me given that at that point, my handwriting had more resemblance to the scrawl a chicken might make after accidentally falling in a tin of paint.
I did have a plan though, one that relied heavily on role plays. What better way to teach effective English communication than by giving my group the opportunity to act out what a text book writer believed was a real life situation? As it turns out, anything is better than forcing people to take part in a role play. Role playing is better left to those who enjoy Dungeons and Dragons, not those who need to write a simple email or hold a two minute conversation on the phone.
However, in that moment, standing before 12 strangers and having a minor nervous breakdown, role plays were the only thing I could think of. As I explained the activity and began pairing off the group, an older women who up until that point had been more occupied by her basket containing two types of bottled water and what looked like some kind of doctors sample, which turned out to be cloudy apple juice, interjected:
“I will not take part in this Sci-fi” she declared with hand gesture she could only have learned from watching documentaries about despotic monarchs.
“erm, sorry...I don’t think I know what you mean” I stammered as sweat began to pore from my brow.
“This Sci-fi, I will not do”. She declared again.
“Yea, OK. It isn’t really sci-fi...” I began, but quickly realised that giving this woman an in depth account of my comprehensive understanding of science fiction might not be the best strategy.
What this office worker was attempting to say was that in her personal and professional opinion, pretending to be someone else and acting out a specific role within a dialogue was not exactly conducive to her learning process and she would much prefer to try free language construction within structured scenario. I agree with her, now. At the time all I could think was if role playing a business trip dialogue, which covered how best to ask for a coffee instead of tea, was her idea of sci-fi, the mere mention of intergalactic epics like Star Wars might blow her tiny mind. God knows what might have happened if I told her about Dune.
One of the frequent mistakes between German and English is where the words should be placed in any given sentence. This is especially true of adjectives and adverbs. I won’t go into great depth, but suffice it to say that German adverbs are not always found directly next to the verb. This can create some confusion in understanding for native English speakers, given that a lot of information is given through the active words in a sentence. We are often left hunting for the verb when people are speaking, in the hope of finding out what action a person is discussing. On top of that we have some misuse of language or simply a mistake in placing contextual words into a sentence, which is why a recent interaction with my wife left me temporarily wondering if I had accidentally married a sociopath.
My wife and I were walking to the gym in the early evening and since we have only been married a few years, we still enjoy chatting to each other. We were discussing our days and moaning about various stupid things we both had experienced or in my case had done.
“and then some twat in an Audi cut me off and I almost crashed” I said with the righteous indignation of someone who really wishes they drove an Audi.
“That reminds me” my wife began cheerily “I saw a woman get run over...” she continued, as if describing a slightly disappointing flea market or the purchase of a cake that was not as delicious as it had looked in the window.
I stopped dead in my tracks, mouth agape. My wife had seen a terrible accident and she appeared to not even care. Perhaps she was still in shock, maybe we should go back to the house and discuss it, talk it though, maybe find a way for her to fully express what she was feeling. I would have to be a rock, help her in any way possible. I needed to be strong, for her.
“...almost” she finished.
“You saw a women get run over...almost?” I repeated back to her in disbelief. “So you didn’t actually see anyone get run over?” I asked.
“No, no, but she could have been” she responded airily.
I started walking again, making a mental note to wait a couple of beats in future before mentally planning to have my wife sectioned. My wife speaks fluent English and teaches at a local school, so I was a little confused as to why she had structured the sentence with such an obvious mistake.
"I thought it would be more exciting" she divulged "You have to keep things interesting".